Wednesday, October 28, 2009

This is the road to Hell!

We knew that the road from the Guatemalan border contained sections of gravel and true to form about one mile inside the country we were back on the old familiar rough stuff, the road surface was flat and good going except on the corners where the car and truck traffic push the lumps of gravel into neat piles on the inside or outside track depending on the curve.

We love gravel, yes we do!

After having taken a fall in Alaska on worse roads than these we were in no hurry to get anywhere fast but things were made easier by the absence of traffic. In a country as poor as Guatemala one of the first things you notice is the lack of personal vehicles in rural areas, the main modes of transport are motorcycles with the occasional beat up pick up truck, in the villages mini vans serve as buses and stop whenever and wherever to pick up or drop off passengers. Everybody else walks and sometimes you see the odd horseman or just a horse. After about fifteen miles the gravel disappeared and changed to tarmac, we picked up the pace but kept an eye open for the usual hazards wandering on the road.

We tried to convince the three little pigs that there were no wolves in Guatemala.

Our plan was to visit the huge Mayan ruins at Tikal before heading to Antigua where we were hoping to take Spanish classes, we avoided the expensive hotels close to the park and chose a hotel lodge at El Remate on the shores of Lake Peten Itza about twenty miles away. This is the off season in Central America so usually the accommodation is cheaper and you get the pick of the rooms, the Hotel de Don David is owned by an American who has lived here for thirty five years. We couldn't have picked a better location, the service was great, the restaurant overlooked the lake and it was on the road to Tikal.

Casa De Don David

Sunset over Lake Peten Itza.

If you stand on one of these you have a devil of a job cleaning your feet!

Rather than ride to Tikal on the bikes, we decided to hire the services of a guide complete with transport which always makes for a more informative visit. To say Tikal is huge is something of an understatement, at  the height of it's power it was the largest city in the Americas and covered an area of over 220 square miles and contained an estimated 10,000 buildings and temples! Now the jungle has reclaimed all but the excavated areas but when the city was populated most of the surrounding area would have been treeless, the trees having been cut down for construction or firewood.

Pics from Tikal

Isn't she pretty?

As with all the other major Mayan sites excavation and reclamation is an ongoing project hampered by the lack of cash, as you walk round the site everywhere you look there is evidence of temples, buildings, or pathways emerging from the undergrowth.

We played poke the Tarantula with a piece of grass. The guide knew exactly where to find the spider and the spider probably knew at some point he was going to get poked by a piece of grass.

The Grand Plaza.

Isn't that Lara Croft?

Couple of old ruins!

The best views require some legwork.

I wouldn't go in there if I were you

Leafcutter ants.

The view from the top of Temple 4.

This is the most famous photograph of the ruins at Tikal, in fact it's so famous I can guarantee that most of you reading this have seen this shot before. Unless that is, you haven't seen Star Wars Episode 4, for the nerdy types among you it was used as the location for the Rebel base on planet Yavin 4. (see end of clip below)

And here's my own Rebel force!

This is a rare photo, Joe is very uncomfortable with heights.

Bloody tourists!

the Temple at El Mundo Perdido, (the lost world)

This thing was bigger than a racoon but smaller than a tiger,

This was a bird very similar to a turkey, in fact they called it.......a turkey.
(beautiful plumage the Norwegian Blue)

And this is......look this is not the bloody Discovery Channel, I just take the photos OK.

Temple 5.

This is not for the faint hearted.

The view from the top.

As we were leaving the Casa De Don David Joe got his front wheel stuck in a rut coming up the ramp from the parking lot and had a slight 'off', no major damage just a few scratches, unfortunately we broke the first rule of falling off the bike....Take pictures!
From Tikal we drove to Coban where we struggled to find a decent hotel (I know life's tough on the road) Someone did mention later that there were good places to stay in Coban but you can't convince us that's true.

Occasionally we came across diversions, in this case it was a new bridge across the river that had been abandoned for obvious reasons. There is always an alternative route to get back on track, but it's never signposted so it's a case of find it yourself.

In this case it was a dirt track just down the road.

Joe and Lynn bringing up the rear

For all the hazards created by bad drivers (and the Guatemalans are bad drivers) the deadly cattle truck takes some beating. In the centre of the carriageway you can just see a line of dried cow crap which is no big deal but every now and then a stream of wet stuff runs of the back of the truck and if you get on that it's worse than oil and the smell is just an added extra. this shot was taken just as we were about to overtake.

Welcome to the jungle.

It appears as though if you have any form of transport you become a taxi, I don't know if the driver charges passengers or if it's a community service.

Can't do without TV, even in the jungle.

When the river get too wide for a bridge there is always the ferry, in this case it cost 5 Quetzales (about 30p) and looked like it was ready to sink.

Whaddya mean it's underpowered?

Sue answering the usual questions, how fast? how far? how much?

Joe about to run over some unsuspecting local!

The local women in Guatemala carry everything on their heads (except kids and livestock) sometimes the bundles look bigger than the women. I figure that with all that weight they must get shorter as they get older and probably end up about 2 feet tall.

Roadside diner

Joe been mobbed at a gas station

The road from Coban to Guatemala City was probably the most hazardous of our whole trip, the road conditions on some stretches were superb unfortunately for us the drivers weren't. As we have journeyed South I have tried to adapt to the varying driving conditions, if you apply the same methods here as you do back home you will not live long. You assume that everyone else is going to do the most unlikely manouevre and take evasive action accordingly, if that involves undertaking or driving on the pavement then that's considered normal!

Our first encounter with the dreaded 'Chicken Buses'. Anything smaller than a bus is fair game for these guys, they have no road sense and even less consideration for other road users.

Shortly after this shot was taken we were run off the road by a driver who had decided my space was his space, I saw him coming up on the outside and thought "Shit he's close" so I pulled over towards the edge of the road to give him some room and he just kept getting closer when I looked back at the road there was nowhere to go except off, fortunately there was about 18 inches of concrete before the jungle which allowed me to slow down and get back on the highway. This happened twice in the space of a couple of hours, the second time I was ready to retaliate but Sue as always pointed out the benefit of arriving at our destination on a bike, not in an ambulance.
(We would meet up with Oisin and Helmar later in Antigua and discover Helmar had been knocked of his bike on the same stretch of road)
Now at this point it's worth noting that whilst the chicken bus drivers are crazy, inconsiderate, dangerous bastards they are very good at what they do. They must have an immovable faith in life after death to take those kind of risks, and why anyone would pay money to sit in a ticking time bomb is beyond me.
When we visited Dan in San Diego he warned us about these guys and also said if he was ever going to rob a bank he wanted the getaway vehicle to be Guatemalan chicken bus with it's driver at the wheel!

The outskirts of Guatemala City.

Joe and I had studied the maps and thought we had a good idea of how to skirt round the City and avoid the rat race on our way to Antigua......we didn't. We were just about to consult our maps when we were stopped by a nice motorcycle cop, before he could say anything I shook his hand, smiled and explained as best I could that we were lost. He must have been in a good mood because he decided to take us through the city with lights flashing and point us on the right road to Antigua....Result!

"No Senor we have no idea what you are saying, maybe it would be a good idea for you to escort us through the City"

As I type this I am listening to the hotel staff learning to play the Marimba....badly, no bloody awfully actually. But that's sometime in the future, so until then......

The Marimba ( pronounced JESUS will you stop playing that fucking thing!)  is a musical instrument in the percussion family. Keys or bars usually made of wood are struck with mallets to produce musical notes. The keys are arranged as those of a piano, with the accidentals raised vertically and overlapping the natural keys to aid the performer both visually and physically.

Where's the Guatemalan death squads when you need them!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

2 Borders in four days.

So what was all the fuss about.......
The border crossing from Mexico to Belize was a breeze, we changed our remaining Mexico Pesos into Belize Dollars at a little shop just before the border, there were no money changers hanging about and we parked the bikes next to the immigration office and left Sue and Lynn to look after them.

"Don't take your eyes of the bikes".

First stop for Joe and I was the Aduana (Customs) to check the bikes out of Mexico we handed in the Temporary Vehicle Import Permits (TVIP) and had them cancelled to show we had left the country with the same bikes and the vehicle identification number was photographed to make sure it was the same bike, that done we crossed no man's land to the Belize customs to import the bikes. On the way we were accosted by some bloke trying to make a quick buck by helping us get through the border quicker but we were having none of it, we did however pick up the statutory third party insurance and went on our way to Belize. The guy at the Belize border desk was very helpful and suggested that rather than go through the hassle of processing a TVIP for Belize that we just get a stamp in the passports showing we were in transit for less than seven days and they would then cancel the stamp when we left to go into Guatamala. We were made to go back down the road to quarantine to get the bikes sprayed with what looked like water and pay for the privilege! Next was immigration where mine and Sue's passports were stamped (It has not been necessary so far for Sue to be present at immigration, I have just handed over both passports and explained I was travelling with my wife.) All told it took less than an hour, there were no queues and the only problem we had was when Sue got a bollocking for taking photographs, after she deleted the photos in front of the Border official we were good to go.

Last look at Mexico.

To be fair the whole process was made easier by the fact that the Border Officials spoke English, Belize has a mixture of three languages English, Spanish and Creole and even the Mexican Officials know enough English to process the stream of Belize citizens crossing the border. So that was the first border crossing out of the way and it sort of reassured us for the upcoming crossing from Belize into Guatemala in a few days time.
The first thing you notice on entering Belize is the standard of living, very few structures look as though they would stand up in a strong wind and anything constructed of concrete block is either a factory, a prison, a hotel or a government building.

There's a house in there somewhere.

Once inside Belize the GPS would only function on the base map loaded on the internal memory, the base map shows only main roads and quite often the road on the screen would disappear altogether only to appear again some distance down the road. As we were travelling on the main highways this didn't cause a problem until we hit the towns or cities, and even then the direction to the city centre is usually well signposted. Before we left Chetumel we had decided to spend a couple of days on one of the islands on the coral reef off the coast of Belize, there is a frequent water taxi service to the islands so all we had to do was find the ferry terminal and arrange somewhere to leave the bikes for a couple of days. We almost made it to the waterfront but me being me decided to go the wrong way, but in my defence I realised straight away and stopped to ask for directions from some kids on push bikes. One of them was just about to enlighten us on our intended route when you could see the light bulb turn on in his head "follow me" says he "I'll take you" and within a flash he takes off like stink down the road causing us to throw a sharp U-turn to keep up with him.

You can't see it in this photo but there's smoke coming off his rear tyre!

We arrived at the water taxi terminal in double fast time and paid him for his services and no sooner had we handed over a couple of dollars than the Rasta touts descended on us offering everything from dodgy trinkets to dodgy tobacco.

Thats a two dollar smile.

When they spied us parting with cash and the big bikes with 'bling' we were elevated to the level of family!, some guy latched onto me claiming I was his "white brudda from a different mudda" what I should have said was something to the effect of "yeah an I'm no white sucker you scrounging ........." anyway I thought better of it and anyhow by this time more had arrived and we had the makings of a Reggae band swarming round the bikes. One of the 'Marley Boys' was informing us that there was really no safe parking except some factory back outside the city, when we were rescued by Andy the terminal security guard. "No problem, you can park the bike on the quayside for a couple of days and it will be safe and secure". You bet it would be safe and secure, the parking area was a strip of concrete about 6 feet wide at the back of the terminal and could only be accessed by a pair of double doors and a ramp, if anyone wanted to pinch the bike they better have a bloody big boat with a hoist and winch. All we had to do was ride the bike up the ramp off the street, through the terminal building and down a ramp onto the quayside! Easy peasy lemon squeezy!

The red arrow points to the doors and the ramp onto the quayside.

Getting up the ramp off the street was relatively easy, clear the crowds, turn left at the souvenir counter past the Pharmacy and through the rows of chairs in the waiting room.

Let's go off roading!

What's up lady, never seen a bike before?

Now the fun part... how to ride down the ramp and make a left turn without ending up in the drink.

 What do you mean, does your bike float?

I thought better than to try and ride down unassisted so I had two helpers hold the front of the bike by the crash bars. As soon as the front wheel dropped onto the ramp I was unable to put my feet down and hoped they would keep me vertical......and dry!
The process of Joe and I manoeuvering  the bikes onto the quayside was fairly ugly and fortunately went unrecorded, however, we ended up with both bikes neatly positioned as you can see.

Job well done.

BOB 'chillin' out with Joe's Suzuki behind (in the dress).

Once the bikes were stashed away we had lunch at Jenny's kitchen over the road, of all the stuff on the menu the armadillo sounded best and actually tasted good (apart from the odd bit of shell) It tasted infinitely better than the Rocky Mountain oysters the Fort Morgan posse convinced me to eat when we stayed with Joe and Lynn in Colorado. For the record Rocky Mountain oysters are actually buffalo or bull's testicles thinly sliced or pounded flat and deep fried, I have eaten worse things in my time but it wasn't the taste that upset me it's the thought of someone slicing through a testicle with a sharp instrument or pounding it flat with a blunt instrument that gives you an uncomfortable feeling only blokes can appreciate!

What the hell are turkey parts?

The water taxi ride was more like a power boat race, three 225 horsepower outboards fixed to the flat end and a driver who looked like he favoured a bit of the 'whacky baccy'.

Fasten your seatbelts and scream if you want to go faster.

He obviously knew what he was doing or we were incredibly lucky because forty minutes later we were on Caye Caulker our little piece of paradise nestled in the worlds second largest barrier reef. The island is one of the largest in the archipelago but small enough to walk around in a couple of hours, there are virtually no cars and the main mode of transport is bicycle or golf buggy.

Sue and Lynn share a taxi.

The life on the island is slooooooooow which is just as well because the majority of the men just seem to hang around doing nothing day and night, some of them look like they wouldn't work in a iron lung! It must be that Caribbean culture thing, don't happy. Maybe we caught them in between shifts but for the two days we were there I swear some of them never moved!

Rush hour in Caye Caulker.

For two days we tried to fit in with locals and did sod all, any chance we get to recharge the batteries is taken eagerly and it's impossible to convince you all at home in your overcoats and thermal underwear that travelling to all these exotic locations is I won't bother,  I'll just post some more photos of our two days on the island.

Ok, where were we......Oh yes you were sat there with the central heating on and the butter on the kitchen worktop cos it's so cold it won't melt and us.... well we're just melting! honestly, the water was so warm I had to sit in the sun to cool off. Anyway enough of the bullshit, let's get back to the real world.

Time to go.........

The stay on the island came to end all too soon and we found ourselves back in Belize at the water taxi terminal faced with the problem of getting the bikes off the quayside. First of all we had to turn them round to face the ramp which wasn't as easy as you think (on reflection next time I'll take the panniers off) ,then to stop me from rolling back in to the Caribbean if  I didn't make it up the ramp we attached a couple of tie down straps to the crash bars.

What was plan 'B' again?

Joe and helper stood at the top of the ramp holding the reins so to speak, I fired up BOB,  pointed him at the doorway and gunned it up the ramp, making sure I got far enough inside the terminal before running the guys over.


Joe being slightly shorter in the leg was at a disadvantage, but with a bit of a struggle he made it inside.

OK Joe see this guy here, well don't run over him because he'll be holding the bike!

That's not a smile on Joe's face.

Now here's a tip if you have to do this yourself. Make sure the helper doesn't wrap the tie down strap round his hand or wrist cos if the bike rolls back into the water he's going with it and the headlines in the papers the next day would read 'Black guy found in ten feet of water weighed down with a 1000cc motorcycle!
We knew that in order to get out of Belize, into Guatemala and reach our hotel early we would have to keep moving so we headed straight out of town and the road to the border.

Breakfast stop.

The run to the border was good, with the odd river crossing and detour thrown in for good measure. (we managed to lose an hour finding our way out of San Ignacio).

We arrived at the border around one o clock and everything went smoothly, on the Belize side the money changers and tramitadores (helpers) were on us before we had chance to turn off the ignition.We got our remaining Belize Dollars changed into Guatemalan Quetzales and decided to refuse the offer of paid help and tackle the paperwork ourselves. As with getting in, getting out of Belize was made easier by the fact that the officials spoke English and within 45 minutes we were at the Guatemalan border.

Sue in no man's land.

The Guatemalan border was one of the first potentially problematic crossings but surprisingly everybody was really helpful and polite they tolerated our abysmal attempts to speak Spanish and went out of there way to get us through in the minimum amount of time. The same process applies with regard to paperwork, stamp yourself and the bike out of Belize and stamp you and the bike into Guatemala, all in all it took less than 90 minutes to get through both borders.

Goodbye Belize, Hello Guatemala (roughly translated as land of potholes)